A lot can be accomplished in seven months, Dr. Stephen Sheppard, a professor of forest resources management at UBC, told North Cowichan’s council on May 15.
Sheppard was responding to a question from Mayor Al Siebring asking if between now and Dec. 31 is enough time for meaningful public engagement on the future of the municipality’s 5,000-acre municipal forest reserve.
Sheppard was asked by council to organize a presentation on his work with other communities in developing sustainable forest management plans with full public engagement in the process, and present it at the council meeting.
“I’m not sure if seven months is enough time to resolve all the issues involved, but it is enough time for a coherent process to get going to achieve some results regarding decision making [in the reserve],” he said.
Council committed in April to a “deep and broad” public engagement on the issue to determine the “highest and best use” of the forest reserve after demands for the public to be more involved in the decision making process for the publicly owned reserve.
Council has endorsed just the completion of existing 2018 forestry contracts and harvesting of blow downs from the windstorm in December in 2019 until experts are tapped for their input and the public has been thoroughly consulted on what people want for the future of the public properties.
But activities within the reserve since then, particularly plans to remove the blow downs on Stoney Hill, and the fact there still has been no significant public consultations on future plans for the reserve with just seven months to go before the new year, has raised concerns.
In his presentation, Sheppard pointed out some of the common problems local governments and authorities have in developing forestry plans with public input include providing no opportunities for the public to learn and “shift people’s priorities”.
“Not reaching less organized and less vocal stakeholder groups during the public engagement process is another issue,” he said.
“Little transparency in the process and loss of trust with stakeholders can also be a problem, as well as having little interaction with the public after the decisions have been made.”
Sheppard said another issue he has encountered is that, in some cases, public input is obtained, but it’s not used or reflected on when decisions are being made.
“In the absence of good public engagement, people will judge forestry by the way it looks,” he said.
“This includes views from the side of the road or just a few photos [instead of judging it with facts and information].
Council is now awaiting a staff report, which will be tabled at a future council meeting, with options and recommendations for moving forward on a public engagement process.
Council chambers were full of people concerned with the future of the reserve who came to listen to Sheppard’s presentation and express their views and concerns.
Bruce Coates said time is slipping away until 2020 begins and there are still no comprehensive public consultations or plans for the reserve for next year.
“It’s still unclear as to what should be done,” he said.
“Why is no one [from the public] allowed to ask questions during the forest advisory committee meetings? Why is the committee’s mandate still unclear?”
Icel Dobell from the Where do we Stand group, said council was handed a petition with almost 640 signatures that were collected in just two weeks asking for a pause in harvesting and/or logging on Stoney Hill to allow for public consultations on the issue.
“If 639 people in two weeks asking for a pause in harvest/logging on Stoney Hill for public consultation is not an appropriate reason to pause, what would be an appropriate number?” she asked.
“We can’t save the world, but we can make a difference on Stoney Hill.”